Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – May, 2013

The third of the three Biblical Pilgrimage festivals, coming approximately at the beginning of the summer, is Shavuot (“Weeks”), named after the practice of counting the days and weeks from Pesah to Shavuot. Although it is a harvest festival in the Torah, this aspect of the festival has been eclipsed by its post-Biblical connection to the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the Ten Declarations/Commandments and celebrate receiving the Torah.

Torah is, of course, the foundational text of Judaism. Traditional Judaism is structured around the practices of Torah, also know as mitzvah.

The literal, Biblical meaning of mitzvah is commandment, an obligation that God has imposed upon you. The implication of this is spelled out clearly in the Bible – God rewards those individuals and communities who follow the mitzvot, and punishes those who are disobedient. If this theology works for you as a motivation to engage in serious Jewish life and practice, you can stop reading here (and I’ll see you on Shavuot!). If you, however, like most Jews, do not believe that God cares whether you observe mitzvot, don’t believe that God rewards and punishes, keep reading – I’m going to give you an alternative meaning of mitzvah, inspired by a talk given by my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson.

The hasidic tradition noticed that the root of the word mitzvah in Aramaic means, “to connect” and understood mitzvah to mean “a connection.” Mitzvah is our means of making connections. When we are in a relationship, we do things for the other person not because we are seeking reward or afraid of punishment, but because the things we do express our desire to be in that relationship. The acts of mitzvah are acts which express our intimate relationship with God and/or with Torah and/or with the Jewish people and/or with the broad and eternal concept of Judaism. Most Jews at certain points in their life, find incredible and deep meaning in mitzvah – it may be within funeral ritual, it may be at a Passover Seder, it may be at a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration, or it may be at a synagogue service. It is an experience of finding a connection to eternity through the texts and rituals that have sustained the Jewish relationship with the Divine for millennia. As in any relationship, the more you do, the deeper the relationship becomes, and the more joy you find in the relationship. Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the “love letter” and marriage contract of the Divine-Human relationship. See you at Mount Sinai!

The full talk by Rabbi Artson, Contemporary Meaning of Mitzvot, can be found online at ZiegerTorah.org.


I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • Partially planning and leading a 9th grade religious school trip to New York. We visited three different synagogues for services, two Jewish museums, a number of kosher restaurants, a walking tour and a museum of the Lower East Side, a Broadway Show, and more.
  • I gave an Introduction to Judaism talk and tour of the Synagogue to students of Westwood Middle School of Grand Rapids.

Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Mitzvah, Shavuot, Torah

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2013

April 7 is Yom Hashoah V’hagevurah, the day designated by the Israeli Kenesset as the day to remember the Holocaust and the Heroism of those who resisted. I have been thinking a lot lately about how we commemorate Yom Hashoah. Some survivors choose to remember by telling their story, others are very reluctant not only to tell the story but to have it know that they have a story at all. Having heard quite a few survivors speak, I understand quite well those who feel that telling the story satisfies a human voyeuristic impulse to gaze upon another’s pain, but can never fully transmit the depth of the actual experience and does not always transmit useful lessons.

What troubles me about the stories is when the survivor uses his or her story as a weapon, a club to beat people over the head with. I heard one such story the last time I took a group to the Halocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills – the survivor repeatedly looked at the audience and accused them of passivity, complicity, and asked them what they are going to do to prevent another holocaust. “This is what happened to me,” the survivor said, “and you” – looking at my Christian college group – “would have been guilty. This is what they did to me – what would you have done about it?”

I fully support Steven Speilberg’s project or documenting, recording, and saving the stories. We need to retain the hard evidence of human stories and suffering to keep the holocaust deniers at bay. However, if the only result of publicly telling a story is to make the audience squirm with guilt that they, who were born 50 years after the end of WWII, didn’t take action, what’s the use of the story?

There are many ways of commemorating Yom Hashoah. My Rabbinic colleagues have created a “Megilah Hashoah,” a Holocaust Scroll, modelled after Jeremiah’s Biblical book of Lamentations. They suggest reading it liturgically on Yom Hashoah just as we read Lamentations on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some fast; most do not. Some say Kaddish for those whose lives were lost. Some give tzedakah to organizations that fight hated and/or murderous dictatorships. Some gather together and tell and hear stories. Some say extra prayers for the souls of the murdered six million. Some demonstrate against ongoing holocausts and other slaughters taking place in Africa and the Middle East today. Any and all of these things are good ways to observe Yom Hashoah. The only thing that should not be acceptable is to ignore the day completely. So take action. Make April 7 into Yom Hashoah. Post a remembrance on your Facebook status. Do something.

I don’t want the world to forget, and I want the remembering to have a useful outcome.


I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • Unfortunately, we experienced three funerals in the past month, and one additional Shiva home from an out of town funeral.
  • • Between Purim and Pesah, I studied a tractate of Mishnah, concluding the book on the morning prior to Pesah with a celebratory meal to break the fast of the first born.
  • • I administered the Ma’ot Hittim program – collecting money, buying Meijer gift cards, and distributing them to those who need extra help buying Pesah food.

Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: Holocaust, Yom Hashoah

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March, 2013

Households, cities, countries, and nations have enjoyed great happiness when a single individual has taken heed of the Good and Beautiful. . . . Such people not only liberate themselves; they fill those they meet with a free mind.

– Philo (1st century BCE/CE Hellenistic Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt)

Eknath Easwaran, 20th century spiritual teacher and author of books on meditation and ways to lead a fulfilling life, wrote:

Just as we live in a physical atmosphere, we are surrounded also by a mental atmosphere. And just as the air we breathe may become polluted, our mental atmosphere can be polluted by negative thinking. If trees were not always releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, scientists tell us, all life on earth would suffer. On a smoggy day the trees along the freeway look grey and drab in the haze; they do not seem to add anything valuable to the landscape.

Yet they are performing a vital function: they are taking in our carbon dioxide and giving us oxygen in return.

A person whose mind is free from negative thinking spreads a life-giving influence in much the same way that a tree gives oxygen. Although a selfless man or woman may seem to go through the day doing nothing extraordinary, without them nothing would revitalize the atmosphere in which we think. By being vigilant, and not encouraging negative thoughts, all of us can offer this vital service – which benefits everybody, including ourselves. [from Eknath Easwaran’s Thought for the Day, easwaran.org/thoughts-for-the-day-quotes.html. Thank you to Pat Nowak for introducing me to this daily email.]

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, a word containing a root for narrowness and constriction. Egypt is named for its primary geographical feature, a thin strip of fertile land adjacent to the Nile, surrounded by dry, unforgiving, desert. Spiritually, however, Mitzrayim/Egypt can be understood as a mindset, that of constricted, narrow-minded stuck-inside-the-box thinking.

The spiritual Passover is a process of freeing ourselves from the small box in which we may find ourselves, especially when we are living in crisis mode. Those who are constricted by negativity see the world through that negative lens. Their experience is that the world is a hard, unforgiving place. The world has given them a hard time, so they proactively push back by attacking the world with antagonistic and negative thoughts. It is an inversion of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you think negative thoughts about yourself, then you assume that your neighbor is similarly plotting negative actions against you.

Freedom is the ability to breathe, calm the mind, and realize that the world does not hate us. When we breathe out love and positive energy into the world, those around us breathe in the fresh oxygen. They feel better, and radiate happiness and calm. We are surrounded by calm, happy people, which reinforces our own sense of security and well-being, shalom.

This is what it means to leave Mitzrayim and cross through the Sea of Reeds into a place of Freedom.

May you have a liberating Passover. May you climb out of the box of Egypt, stretch and open up all of the constricted places in your body, and feel the great happiness of freedom.


Some people are curious about the variety of things that I do, in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • I represented the Jewish community on a multi-cultural/faith panel during a Spectrum Health day long educational workshop on Cultural Diversity: The End of Life.
  • I was a guest speaker in a World Religions course at Cornerstone College.
  • I studied everything every written by Stanislavski Method to prepare for my role as Stephen Foster in the Purimshpiel (if you missed it, you can find a rave review in the New York Times).

Filed under: Embodied Torah

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – February, 2013

Over the past year or so we have heard two Sanctuary Shabbat presentations addressing the problem of homelessness in Grand Rapids. Both speakers, one from Family Promise of Grand Rapids, the other from the Salvation Army Booth Family Services program of the Salvation Army, spoke about programs in partnership with congregations. Family Promise organizes temporary shelters in congregations, as well as giving support, resources, training, and mentorship as families look for permanent housing and employment. The Booth Family Services places families in apartments with various kinds of support including financial, gradually decreasing over a six month period of time until they are entirely self-sufficient.

Both programs have been successful, and both are looking to build more partnerships with congregations. Family Promise needs Support Congregations to help the Host Congregations (who actually host families for a week at a time sleeping in their buildings). The Booth Family Services needs congregations to “adopt” and support specific families that would be assigned to them.

As a congregation, we might support either program financially, but my thinking right now is that we should participate in one of the program through our volunteer efforts. I am looking for one or two people to act as the point person(s), to help me decide which program we should volunteer with and be the contact person for the organization to identify a volunteer assignment and publicize that within the congregation. I also want to build a list of at least a dozen people who are willing to help the families, go to the shelter location, tutor children, take people to appointments, cook meals, or do any of the other tasks that are necessary to support the program.

If you would like to be the chair or co-chair of this project, or if you would like to be one of the volunteers should we as a congregation add this to our gemilut hasadim activities, please let me know.

Our responsibility as members of Congregation Ahavas Israel, as Jews, and as human beings goes beyond coming to Shabbat services, studying Torah, keeping kosher, and serving on committees (although these things are important). We have an obligation, a mitzvah, to help feed, cloth, and shelter another human being who is suffering. I am deeply discomforted by people who hold up signs at intersections reading, “hungry, homeless, jobless, please help.” I address the discomfort as I can, by giving money, usually to organizations that work in effective and lasting ways to end problems of hunger and homelessness. Sometimes, though, giving money is not enough. Giving of ourselves, our time, is also needed. Please join me as a Congregation to address the problem of homelessness.


I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • I have been working on planning spring activities, including lining up Sanctuary Shabbat speakers, planning a series of educational workshops, and working on the Purimsheil.
  • • I have been working on recruiting teens and middle school students for the upcoming Kinnusim in Columbus, Dayton, and at Camp Tamarack, and accompanied two Kadima (Middle School) age students to Columbus as their advisor.

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Tzedakah/Gemilut Hasadim - The Embodied Torah of Giving Tagged: Family Promise, Gemilut Hasadim, homeless, Salvation Army, shelter

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – January, 2013

18 years at Ahavas Israel seems like a long time until you compare it with Cantor Stuart’s 36 years. I am honored and grateful that the congregation gave such a wonderful tribute to Stuart and me last month. Actually, the 18 years have flown by – I remember driving into Grand Rapids from Minneapolis for the first time, on Sunday, July 31, 1994. I remember rounding the hill by Lake Michigan Drive and the Zoo, and seeing the skyline of downtown – and then stopping at a pay phone because we couldn’t find the way to Rhonda Reider and Mike Halprin’s home for dinner. I remember meeting Judy Joseph, among other members of the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning minyans that week. And I remember getting a phone call from a young woman named Marni Holtzman, who had recently graduated from the University of Michigan and was headed to Jerusalem to study at Pardes – she wanted to know if I had an extra Hebrew dictionary that she could borrow (I did). I thought about all of this and more during the tribute event that Marni,  Rhonda, and Judy (and other people too numerous to name) worked so many hours to plan.

I remember unrolling sleeping bags in our bedroom that first night, because the moving van from New York wouldn’t arrive for another week. I remember eagerly showing up for work the next morning and waiting in the parking lot for Tom Greenwald and Suzanne Doten to arrive, because I didn’t have keys to the building. I remember speaking to Noah and Jon Droski that first Shabbat on the occasion of the celebration of their B’nai Mitzvah. I don’t remember what I said, given that I hardly knew them – but I taught 7th grade that year, so I got to know them, as well as Andy Strate, Noah Rymer, Joseph Knape, and Jana Neil, quite well. Arlene Loby was the principal of the three day a week religious school and Phil Loby was the chair of the Board of Education. Fred Meyerson was the chair of the Ritual committee. Stuart Rapaport was on his second go-around as President.

I begin writing my sermons on a Mac Classic, with its nine inch monochrome screen. I spoke about Building Community, Prayer, Ethical Wills, and Experiencing Loss. I used email to share sermons and thoughts and questions with other rabbis, but relatively few people in the synagogue had email, so I answered many more phone calls than I do today.

Rabbi Alan Alpert of Muskegon, now the senior congregational rabbi of West Michigan (perhaps of the East side as well), convened a meeting of all of the non-Detroit rabbis. Rabbi Lewis and I drove to the first one together, in Lansing. Except for Rabbi Alpert and Rabbi Spivak of Kalamazoo, none of the other communities represented, Bay City/Saganaw/Midland, Flint, Benton Harbor, Lansing/East Lansing, and Jackson, have the same rabbi now as they did then; many of them no longer have rabbis; some of the congregations no longer exist. In this era of Jewish life, survival alone is an accomplishment.

Congregation Ahavas Israel has survived (as have I) and more. We have re-envisioned what it means to be a synagogue in the 21st century. We have stronger partnerships with the Federation and with Temple Emanuel than we did 18 years ago. We have lost some committees and groups (such as the board of Education and Sisterhood), but gained or renamed others (the United Jewish School Board, the Religious Life committee, and a social committee, to name a few). We will continue to change and evolve in order to fulfill the needs of the portion of the population in Grand Rapids which is seeking traditional Torah based Judaism in a modern framework.  People who seek to understand and practice a Torah centered life while also fully participating in a modern egalitarian world look to us to provide a serious and supportive Jewish community. It has been my honor and privilege and pleasure to be with you for the past 18 years, and I look forward to many more years into the future.

Some people are curious about the variety of things that I do, in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • I concluded my seven session Talmud class, teaching the beginning of the tractate of Sanhedrin, about the structure of the Jewish civil and criminal court system.
  • • We have been storing many boxes of old religious books for burial, so I planned and led a geniza book burial ceremony for the United Jewish School/Community. On the same Day as the book burial ceremony, Temple Emanuel and Ahavas Israel held a communal day of Learning in conjunction with a Global Day of Jewish Learning sponsored by Jewish Federation of North America. I taught some of the laws relating of the proper disposal of written materials with God’s name.
  • • I convened a Beit Din (Court of three Rabbis) to supervise a conversion at the Mikvah in West Bloomfield.
  • • I do not do many tours of the synagogue (Shirley Kleiman is our expert tour guide), but I led a tour for my daughter’s friend’s 4th – 6th grade Catholic Church youth group.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: Congregation Ahavas Israel

Why My Blind Son is Returning from Camp Ramah-Canada a Month Early

My almost-16 year old blind son, Solomon, was supposed to spend 8 weeks in the second-oldest Aidah (age group) at Camp Ramah in Canada, a Jewish camping program affiliated with the Conservative movement. My wife and I went to visit him and our 12 year old daughter this week. While there, the camp director told us that he was sending Solomon home four weeks early at the session break because “the camp is not able to accommodate Solomon’s needs for the full 8 week session.”

This is Solomon’s fifth year at camp. Sol went for one session each summer for the previous four years, but this year, called the “Magshimim” year, required campers to enroll for the full summer. Solomon was thrilled to go for both sessions. He loves camp, and for the first four summers, it appeared that Ramah loved Solomon and was completely willing to assign extra staff and arrange for some Braille materials so Sol could participate fully in the camp program. There were some rough spots. Camp staff did not always do everything they could have to ensure that Sol had the proper materials and was fully included in every activity, but we were confident that the director was committed to full inclusion, and neither we nor Solomon let the small things bother us very much.

This summer, a new director took the helm just a month before camp started. He didn’t know Solomon and we didn’t know him. Nevertheless, we assumed that the camp’s prior commitment to accessibility and inclusion would be maintained. We were wrong. Part of the Magshimim summer is a five day overnight camping trip. Although the overnight has three tracks for kids of varying levels of fitness and ability, the counselors, Rosh Aidah (unit head), Yoetzet (advisor/parent liaison), and camp director met and decided, without consulting with Solomon or with us, that they didn’t have the staff to accommodate Sol on the camping trip. Further, they also decided that they couldn’t continue to accommodate Sol for the second four weeks of camp. Ultimately, the final decision to remove Solomon from camp rested squarely on the shoulders of the new director, who decided that the camp was not willing to either hire an additional staff member or redirect a small amount of current staff time to helping with Solomon’s special needs.

Among the reason he gave for sending Solomon home early was that Sol takes too long eating his meals and showering, and requires help moving from activity to activity, which he also does very slowly. He also suggested that the Magshimim program requires moving around camp and engaging in camp activities independently, something which is nearly impossible for a blind camper with no vision to do. Note that at no time did the Yoetzet (advisor/parent liaison) bother to contact us regarding these issues. Had she asked, we could have given her some simple solutions for speeding up Sol. Also note that while it is standard procedure to include 15 year old students with special needs in discussions of their public school Individualized Educational Program, the camp held all of these discussions about Solomon without including or consulting with Solomon.

The first thing that Solomon told us when we saw him on the first day of our visit was that he wanted to return to camp next year, and that he would do anything and give up anything, including a possible trip to Israel tailored to blind students, for the opportunity to return to camp for his final summer. Our conversations with the director took place at the end of the second day of our visit, while Solomon was on a one night overnight with 8 other campers, who also had not gone on the 5 day overnight. We told the director that he had to tell Solomon why he was being sent home from camp early and why he would not be given the opportunity to return to camp at all the following year.

On the final morning of our visit, we sat in the director’s office as Solomon heard the news from the director. Solomon was brilliant. After saying that he was heartbroken at hearing such totally unexpected news, he saw through the holes in the director’s flimsy explanation of why he needed to go home and asked the same question that Marisa and I had asked the night before: “The camping trip is over – what is happening in the second four weeks that would be difficult for me to participate in?” There was no real answer to that question. The director’s explanation boiled down to a statement that the camp is not willing to devote the resources to continuing to include Solomon fully in the program. During our conversation the previous evening, I had challenged the director’s lack of commitment to inclusion – he kept using the language of “not able to fully accommodate Solomon’s needs,” and I got him to admit that the honest answer was that the camp is no longer willing to fully accommodate Solomon’s needs. Solomon knew immediately that it was a case of “not willing to,” rather than a case of “not able to.”

I should note at this point that the Camp Ramah system, consisting of nine camps, has a special needs program called “Tikvah.” Each camp specializes in a subset of special needs, such as ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorders, learning, emotional, and developmental disabilities, neurological impairments, and physical challenges. Solomon, while blind, does not fit into any of these categories.  He attends a public college preparatory high school and with minor modifications, completes the regular curriculum.

The major part of my Jewish identity was formed at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I loved Camp Ramah, and because of that my children went to Ramah. This director has betrayed the values of the Jewish camp that I love. The Conservative movement is on record supporting accessibility and inclusion in our institutions. Camp Ramah in Canada is now on record stating that if you have a physical disability and need greater support than the “typical” camper, they will not devote the resources to fully include you in their camp program. You might say that this is not true – they devoted the resources to giving Sol a terrific half summer, it’s just that asking them to accommodate him for the full summer is expecting too much. To this, I say ask Solomon if being the only camper asked to leave camp early, not being able to participate in the full overnight or in the second half of the program, not being able to celebrate the final banquet with his friends, is enough. You can guess what the answer is – being half way included is not enough.

After that painful meeting, sitting in the dining hall with Solomon eating breakfast, I watched the campers sing and dance to a contemporary version of a teaching of Rabbi Akiva:

“Love your neighbor as yourself – This is the fundamental principal of Torah.”

If I didn’t laugh, I would have started crying again. The camp can sing and dance all they want about loving one’s neighbor, but until and unless they back up the words with action, Camp Ramah in Canada will be a place that Rabbi Akiva would be ashamed to be associated with.

Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: Accessible, Blind, Camp Ramah in Canada
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